Colors and music, split-second movement on the screen--video games can have a hypnotic effect. Just ask Jason Weingarten. But don't ask him while he is playing, because the 6-year-old isn't likely to answer.
"Damn," he blurted out, turning his attention to others in the room only after falling victim to some creature in Super Mario Bros. "That's what I always do when I play. I curse."
The intensity of his play reinforces conventional wisdom on video games and their most loyal fans--teen and preteen boys.
It goes like this: boys mature more slowly than girls and, upon smacking face-first into puberty, are more likely to seek the relative comfort of a hobby or sport. Video games offer even the most withdrawn child a chance to exhibit superhuman strength or command great armies or, simply, hit a curveball over the fence at Dodger Stadium.
This simple equation overlooks the fact that most video games are designed for boys and that girls may not be as frequently encouraged to play with high-tech toys. Regardless, it remains that millions of young American boys, like Weingarten, are devoted to video games. And when it comes to the relative merits of this electronic haven, experts disagree.
"Video games have become the new drug of society," said Dr. Carole Lieberman, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and chair of the National Coalition on Television Violence. "Parents who wouldn't allow their child to use drugs are giving them video games. It acts as a drug to make them excited and make them crave more."
The hours a child devotes to battling cartoon dragons would be better spent playing with other children and developing social skills, "the tasks of childhood," Lieberman argued. Some of the people who sell and rent video games agree.
"Unfortunately, this can be the new baby-sitter," said Mike Sobetzko, manager of the Game Dude shop in North Hollywood. "Parents buy a game for $40 and the kid is taken care of for a week."
This concern is heightened by the widespread popularity of violent games. While Math Blaster and the educational Carmen Sandiego series are popular, Mortal Kombat and Super Street Fighter top the bestseller list.
"Just stand outside a video arcade and watch the children going in and coming out. Or watch your own children when they play at home," Lieberman said. "They become glassy-eyed and hyper-excited. I think it's worse than television violence because children are pushing the buttons themselves. They are getting rewarded for destroying people in a game."
But research into the effects of playing violent games has yet to establish an accepted link between such play and aggressive behavior. Some researchers are not eager to condemn.
"The thing about a violent kid is that he can't play imaginatively," said Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith, a University of Pennsylvania professor emeritus and pioneer in the research of toys as culture. "The kid who can play imaginatively doesn't tend to be violent. It's the same with adults. Do you go kill someone after you see 'Macbeth?' "
Moreover, Americans love to play games, Sutton-Smith said. Video games can help a boy or girl learn to play the rest of their lives.
"But you aren't playing to learn, you're playing to play," he said. "People who play are happier people. And people who don't have access to play tend to be depressed."
Are video games a blessing or a curse? Parents find themselves caught between feuding experts and pleading children. Nora Moore, of Mission Hills, limits the hours her three children play.
"I tell them they have to study," Moore explained. "They don't play during the week, only on weekends."
Such limitations appear relatively commonplace. At Game City in Sherman Oaks, owner Alex Mortazavi said that rentals decrease by 70% during the week.
Prevention magazine's The Doctors Book of Home Remedies for Children devotes a chapter to what it calls "Video Game Addiction." Doctors suggest not only limiting a child's video-game playing but also awarding such time in return for completed tasks such as homework and chores. The book also suggests scheduling what it calls "reality breaks."
"After one hour of video game play, the child should be required to take a 'reality break' to discuss briefly with a family member or friend what else is going on in the house," Dr. Donald Jackson Jr. wrote. "It's a way of focusing attention away from the fantasy world of the games for a few minutes."
Jason Weingarten gets such reality breaks when he must put aside Mario Bros. for schoolwork or share games with his 3-year-old brother, David.
"I'm not crazy about some of the games he plays. I don't like Mortal Kombat," said Marcia Weingarten, his mother. "But the other kids talk about them at school. He plays them at his cousin's house. I can't totally shelter him."